We encourage Connecticut residents and state representatives to consider a state commission to study improving the state’s pretrial justice system.
The article clearly explained the challenges to effective and fair pretrial justice. The current money-based system is ineffective at protecting public safety, damages community well-being, and increases racial and economic disparities.
But change takes work, and the pretrial system is vast. Passing laws or implementing statewide court rules will not, on their own, necessarily lead to meaningful change. Involving pretrial system stakeholders — law enforcement, prosecutors, judicial officers, and defense counsel— is necessary, or they may see themselves at odds with legal, evidence-based, and effective practices.
These stakeholders’ different perspectives will also help identify operational challenges that may hinder improvement. For example, small localities may need specific strategies to address issues like having defense counsel at first appearance hearings, when decisions about a person’s liberty are at stake. These issues can make or break any effort to advance pretrial justice.
Likewise, community members, including victim advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience, must be part of the process. Working with local communities in a well-structured process results in better policies, increased buy-in, and stronger communities. Solutions must include common-sense improvements that reduce racial disparities in the system.
The state should invest in data collection and analysis to better understand how pretrial systems currently work and identify where changes are needed. Without evidence, getting people on board for improvements may be impossible.
Connecticut is not alone in focusing on pretrial justice. New Jersey studied its pretrial system in 2012. It found that 40 percent of the jail population was held for an inability to post a monetary bond, with 12 percent held on $2,500 or less, meaning they could not come up with the $250 (or 10 percent) bondsmen typically require. At the same time, the study said people who posed a greater risk to public safety were released because they could afford to pay.
New Jersey passed bipartisan comprehensive justice system reform that continues to receive support from policymakers and pretrial system stakeholders.
A rational, legal framework that defines who is eligible for detention and provides substantive hearings for judges to make informed, deliberate decisions about whether a person should be released or detained before trial will achieve better outcomes and enhance community safety. This is how it works in our federal justice system and in New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and the District of Columbia. However, creating a limited framework must be done carefully, and with attention to the voices of all stakeholders, including community members and people with lived experience.
Many other jurisdictions are now recognizing that current pretrial practices have become untethered from America’s foundational legal principles. More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court was unequivocal in stating that liberty before trial should be the norm and detention the “carefully limited exception.” But conditioning someone’s release on their wealth means pretrial decisions are neither careful nor limited.
Establishing a state commission to study current pretrial policies and practices and collaboratively identifying improvements is likely to result in more effective and equitable pretrial justice that supports community well-being and safety for everyone.
Matt Alsdorf is Associate Director and Alison Shames is Director of the Center for Effective Public Policy. They co-direct the Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research initiative.